Caliph Al-Mansur (ruled 754-75) was the second caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. Under the authorization of “special help” from God he murdered all the Shiite leaders he considered a threat. He decided to build a new capital, surrounded by round walls, near the site of the Sassanid village of Baghdad. His son called himself the “Guided One,” the Shiite equivalent of the Messiah.
Caliph Al-Mansur ended the practice of giving Arabs special privileges. Regional leaders were selected from among local ethnic groups. This was done not so much to create a more equal society but to win the support of landowners so as to establish a feudal style monarchy.
Abul Hasan Ali Al-Masu'di, the great 10th century Arab historian, wrote: “Al Mansur, the third Caliph of the house of Abbas, succeeded his brother Es-Saffah ("the blood-shedder"). He was a prince of great prudence, integrity, and discretion; but these good qualities were sullied by his extraordinary covetousness and occasional cruelty.”
Gaston Wiet wrote in “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate": “Even before the founding of Baghdad, whose well-earned fame grew for at least four centuries, the caliph Mansur sullied his own reputation by having Ibn Muqaffa', the creator of secular Arabic prose, put to death for what were probably political reasons. The writer was only thirty-six years old when he was executed in 757. The caliph thus did away with the reputed translator of the Fables of Bidpai, known today under the title of Kalila and Dimna. It is a masterpiece of Arabic prose, whose literary qualities have never been denied by Arab writers.” [Source: Gaston Wiet, “Baghdad: Metropolis of the Abbasid Caliphate,” Chapter 5: the Golden Age the Golden Age of Arab and Islamic Culture translated by Feiler Seymour University of Oklahoma Press, 1971 <=>]
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Caliph Al-Mansur and Baghdad
Al-Mansur moved the capital of the Arab Muslim kingdom from Damascus in Syria to Kufah and then to Baghdad in Iraq. He selected Baghdad because it lay on major trade routes and Al-Mansur wanted to get as far away from Umayyad influence as possible and to create some distance between them and the Byzantines. The city he built on the west side of the Tigris was called Medinat as-Salam (“City of Peace”).
Baghdad was founded in A.D. 762. Caliph Al-Mansur is said to have brought in over 100,000 architects, craftsman and laborers to build the city from scratch on the Tigris River about 20 miles from Ctesiphin, the Sassanid and Parthian capital, and 60 miles from the ruins of Babylon. It became the famous “round city” with the royal family, the court and administration in the center. Bazaars, markets and craftsmen were relegated to the fringes of the city.
By the reign of Mansur's grandson, Harun ar Rashid (786-806), Baghdad was second in size only to Constantinople. Baghdad was able to feed its enormous population and to export large quantities of grain because the political administration had realized the importance of controlling the flows of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. The Abbasids reconstructed the city's canals, dikes, and reservoirs , and drained the swamps around Baghdad, freeing the city of malaria.
Al Mansur and His Poets
Abul Hasan Ali Al-Masu'di, the great 10th century Arab historian, wrote: Al Mansur “patronized poets and learned men, and was endowed with a remarkable memory. It is said that he could remember a poem after having only once heard it. He also had a slave who could commit to memory anything that he had heard twice, and a slave-girl who could do the same with what she had heard three times. [Source: The Book of Golden Meadows, c. 940 CE , Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 35-89, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]
“One day there came to him a poet bringing a congratulatory ode, and Al Mansur said to him: "If it appears that anybody knows it by heart, or that any one composed it—that is to say, that it was brought here by some other person before thee—we will give thee no recompense for it; but if no one knows it, we will give thee the weight in money of that upon which it is written."
“So the poet repeated his poem, and the Caliph at once committed it to memory, although it contained a thousand lines. Then he said to the poet: "Listen to it from me," and he recited it perfectly. Then he added: "And this slave, too, knows it by heart." This was the case, as he had heard it twice, once from the poet and once from the Caliph. Then the Caliph said: "And this slave-girl, who is concealed by the curtain, she also recollects it." So she repeated every letter of it, and the poet went away unrewarded.
“Another poet, El Asmaïy, was among the intimate friends and table-companions of the Caliph. He composed some very difficult verses, and scratched them upon a fragment of a marble pillar, which he wrapped in a cloak and placed on the back of a camel. Then he disguised himself like a foreign Arab, and fastened on a face-cloth, so that nothing was visible but his eyes, and came to the Caliph and said: "Verily I have lauded the Commander of the Faithful in a 'Kasidah'" (ode).
“Then said Al Mansur: "O brother of the Arabs! if the poem has been brought by any one beside thee, we will give thee no recompense for it; otherwise we will bestow on thee the weight in money of that upon which it is written." So El Asmaïy recited the Kasidah, which, as it was extraordinarily intricate and difficult, the Caliph could not commit to memory. He looked toward the slave and the girl, but they had neither of them learned it. So he cried: "O brother of the Arabs! bring hither that whereon it is written, that we may give thee its weight."
“Then said the seeming Arab: "O my Lord! of a truth I could find no paper to write it upon; but I had amongst the things left me at my father's death a piece of a marble column which had been thrown aside as useless, so I scratched the Kasidah upon that." Then the Caliph had no help for it but to give him its weight in gold, and this nearly exhausted his treasury. The poet took it and departed. When he had gone away, the Caliph said: "It forces it self upon my mind that this is El Asmaïy." So he commanded him to be brought back, and lo! it was El Asmaïy, who said: "O Commander of the Faithful! verily the poets are poor and are fathers of families, and thou dost debar them from receiving anything by the power of thy memory and the memories of this slave and this slave-girl. But wert thou to bestow upon them what thou could easily spare, they might with it support their families, and it could not injure thee."
“One day the poet Thalibi recited an ode in the presence of Al Mansur, hoping for a reward. When he had finished, the Caliph said to him: "Will you have three hundred dinars from my treasury, or hear three wise sayings from my lips?" "Oh," said the poet, anxious to curry favor with his master, "durable wisdom is better than transitory treasure." "Very well," said the Caliph, "the first word of wisdom is: When your garment is worn, don't sew on a new patch, for it looks badly." "alas! alas!" wailed the poet, "there go a hundred dinars at one blow." The Caliph smiled, and continued: "The second piece of advice is: When you anoint your beard, don't anoint the bottom of it, lest you soil your clothes." "Ah!" sighed the poet, "there go the second hundred." Again the Caliph smiled, and continued: "The third piece of advice—--" "O Caliph," cried the poet in an agony: "keep the third piece of advice to yourself and let me have the last hundred dinars." Then the Caliph laughed outright and ordered five hundred dinars to be paid him from the treasury.
Al Mansur and General Abu Muslim
Abul Hasan Ali Al-Masu'di wrote: “Abu Muslim was one of the chief generals of Es-Saffah, Al Mansur's brother and predecessor. On his accession Al Mansur became jealous of Abu Muslim's great power and influence, but sent him notwithstanding to put down a revolt raised by Abd allah, the son of ali. After several battles, Abd allah fled and took refuge in Bassorah, the whole of his camp and treasure falling into the hands of Abu Muslim. Al Mansur sent Yaktin bin Musa to take charge of the treasure. On appearing before Abu Muslim, Yaktin said to him: "Peace be to thee, Emir!" "A murrain on thee, son of a prostitute!" answered the general. "They can use me to shed my blood, but not to guard a treasure." "My lord," answered the messenger, "what has put such thoughts into your head?" "Has not thy master," answered Abu Muslim, "sent thee to confiscate all the treasure which has come into my possession?" "May my wife be divorced forever," said the Caliph's agent, "if he has not sent me simply and solely to congratulate you upon your victory and success!" On these words Abu Muslim embraced him and made him sit by his side. Notwithstanding this, however, when he had bidden him farewell, he said to his officers: "By allah! I know this man will divorce his wife, simply out of fidelity to his master." [Source: The Book of Golden Meadows, c. 940 CE , Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 35-89, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]
“When he had resolved to revolt against Al Mansur, Abu Muslim left Mesopotamia, and set out for Khorassan; while on his part Al Mansur left Anbar, and encamped near the city of Rumiyeh. From thence he sent the following message to Abu Muslim: "I wish to consult you on matters which can not be confided to a letter; come hither, and I shall not detain you long." Abu Muslim read the letter, but would not go. Al Mansur then sent to him Djerir, son of Yezid, the most accomplished diplomatist of his time, who had already made the acquaintance of Abu Muslim in Khorassan.
“When Djerir came into Abu Muslim's presence, he addressed him as follows: "My lord, you have fought hitherto faithfully for the Abbassids (Al Mansur's family); why should you now turn against them? No information has reached the Caliph which should inspire you with any sort of fear; you have really, in my belief, no reason to pursue this line of conduct." Abu Muslim was on the point of promising to return with him, when one of his intimates pressed him not to do so. "My friend," the chief answered him, "I can resist the suggestions of the devil, but not those of a man like this." And in fact Djerir did not cease his persuasions till he had induced him to proceed to the Caliph.
Al Mansur’s Orders the Execution of Abu Muslim
Abul Hasan Ali Al-Masu'di wrote: “Abu Muslim had consulted astrologers, who told him that he was to destroy a dynasty, create a dynasty, and be slain in the land of Rum. Al Mansur was then at Rumaiyat al-Madain, a place founded by one of the Persian kings, and Abu Muslim never suspected that he should meet with his death there, as he fancied that it was Asia Minor which was meant by the oracle. On entering into Al Mansur's presence, he met with a most favorable reception, and was then told to retire to his tent; but the Caliph only waited a favorable opportunity to take him unawares. Abu Muslim then rode a number of times to visit Al Mansur, whose manner appeared less cordial than before. At last he went to the palace one day, and, being informed that the Caliph was making his ablutions previously to his prayers, sat down in an antechamber. In the meanwhile Al Mansur had posted some persons behind a curtain near to the sofa where Abu Muslim was sitting, with the orders not to appear 'till the Caliph clapped his hands. On this signal they were to strike off Abu Muslim's head. [Source: The Book of Golden Meadows, c. 940 CE , Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 35-89, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]
“Al Mansur then took his seat on the throne, and Abu Muslim, being introduced, made his salutation, which the Caliph returned. Al Mansur then permitted him to sit, and, having commenced the conversation, proceeded to level sundry reproaches against him. "Thou hast done this," said he, "and thou hast done that." "Why does my lord speak so to me," replied Abu Muslim, "after all my efforts and services?" "Son of a prostitute!" exclaimed Al Mansur, "thou owest thy success to our own good fortune. Had a negress slave been in thy place, she would have done as much as thou! Wag it not thou who soughtest to obtain in marriage my aunt, Aasiya, pretending indeed that thou wast a descendant of Salit, the son of Abd allah Ibn Abbas? Thou hast undertaken, infamous wretch! to mount where thou canst not reach."
“On this Abu Muslim seized him by the hand, which he kissed and pressed, offering excuses for his conduct; but Al Mansur shouted: "May God not spare me if I spare thee!" He then clapped his hands, on which the assassins rushed out upon Abu Muslim and cut him to pieces with their swords, Al Mansur exclaiming all the time: "God cut your hands off, rascals! Strike!" On receiving the first blow Abu Muslim said: "Commander of the Faithful, spare me that I may be useful against thy enemies." The Caliph replied: "May God never spare me if I do! Where have I a greater enemy than thee?"
“When Abu Muslim was slain, his body was rolled up in a carpet, and soon after Al Mansur's general, Jafar Ibn Hanzala, entered. "What think you of Abu Muslim?" the Caliph said to him. "Commander of the Faithful," answered the other, "if you have ever the misfortune to pull a single hair out of his head, there is no resource for you but to kill him, and to kill him, and to kill him again." "God has given thee understanding," replied Al Mansur: "here he is in the carpet." On seeing him dead, Hanzala said: "Commander of the Faithful, count this as the first day of your reign." Al Mansur then recited this verse: "He threw away his staff of travel, and found repose after a long journey." After this he turned toward the persons present, and recited these lines over the prostrate body: "Thou didst pretend that our debt to thee could never be paid! Receive now thy account in full, O Abu Mujrim. Drink of that draught which thou didst so often serve to others—a draught more bitter to the throat than gall."
Al Mansur and The Scholar Ibn Al Mukaffa
Abul Hasan Ali Al-Masu'di wrote:“Ibn Al Mukaffa, the translator of the book "Kalilah and Dimnah" from Pehlevi into Arabic, was one of the most learned men during the reign of Al Mansur, but suspected of Zendikism, or free-thinking. Al Mansur is reported to have said: "I never found a book on Zendikism which did not owe its origin to Ibn Al Mukaffa." The latter used to be a thorn in the side of Sofyan, the governor of Basra. As Sofyan had a large nose, Ibn Al Mukaffa used to say to him when he visited him: "How are you both?" meaning him and his nose. Sofyan once said: "I had never reason to repent keeping silence." And Ibn Al Mukaffa replied: "Dumbness becomes you; why should you repent of it?" These gibes rankled in Sofyan's mind, and ere long he had an opportunity of glutting his vengeance on Ibn Al Mukaffa. [Source: The Book of Golden Meadows, c. 940 CE , Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 35-89, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]
“Abdallah, the uncle of Al Mansur, had revolted against his nephew, and aspired to the Caliphate; but being defeated by Abu Muslim, who had been sent against him at the head of an army, he took to flight, and dreading the vengeance of Al Mansur, lay concealed at the house of his brothers, Sulaiman and Isa. These two then interceded for him with the Caliph, who consented to forgive what had passed; and it was decided that a letter of pardon should be granted by Al Mansur.
“On coming to Basra the two brothers told Ibn Al Mukaffa, who was secretary to Isa, to draw up the letter of pardon, and to word it in the strongest terms, so as to leave no pretext to Al Mansur for making an attempt against Abdallah's life. Ibn Al Mukaffa obeyed their directions, and drew up the letter in the most binding terms, inserting in it, among others, the following clause: "And if at any time the Commander of the Faithful act perfidiously toward his uncle, Abdallah Ibn ali, his wives shall be divorced from him, his horses shall be confiscated for the service of God in war, his slaves shall become free, and the Moslems loosed from their allegiance to him." The other conditions of the deed were expressed in a manner equally strict. Al Mansur, having read the paper, was highly displeased, and asked who wrote it. On being informed that it was Ibn Al Mukaffa, his brother's secretary, he sent a letter to Sofyan, the governor of Basra, ordering him to put Ibn Al Mukaffa to death. Sofyan was already filled with rancor against Ibn Al Mukaffa, for the reasons mentioned above. He summoned him, and, when he appeared, reminded him of his gibes. "Emir!" exclaimed Ibn Al Mukaffa, "I implore you in the name of God to spare my life." "May my mother be disgraced," replied Sofyan, "if I do not kill thee in a manner such as none was ever killed in before." On this he ordered an oven to be heated, and the limbs of Ibn Al Mukaffa to be cut off, joint by joint; these he cast into the oven before his eyes, and he then threw him in bodily, and closed the oven on him, saying; "It is not a crime in me to punish you thus, for you are a Zindik (free-thinker) who corrupted the people."
“Salaiman and Isa, having made inquiries about their secretary, were informed that he had gone into the palace of Sofyan in good health and that he had not come out. They therefore cited Sofyan before Al Mansur, and brought him with them in chains. Witnesses were produced, who declared that they saw Ibn Al Mukaffa enter Sofyan's palace, and that he never came out after, and Al Mansur promised to examine into the matter. He then said to them: "Suppose that I put Sofyan to death in retaliation for the death of Ibn Al Mukaffa, and that Ibn Al Mulkaffa himself then came forth from that door" (pointing to one which was behind him) "and spoke to you—what should I do to you in that case? I should put you to death in retaliation for the death of Sofyan." On this the witnesses retraced their evidence, and Isa and Sulaiman ceased to speak of their secretary, knowing that he had been killed by order of Al Mansur, who, disregarding his promise, cast Abdallah Ibn ali into prison.
“Terrible as was the wrath of Al Mansur when roused, there were not wanting on occasion those among his subjects who had the courage to rebuke him. Once the Caliph was addressing an audience at Damascus, and said: "O ye people! it is incumbent on you to give praise to the Most High that he has sent me to reign over you. For verily since I began to reign over you, he has taken away the plague which had come amongst you." But a certain Arab cried out to him: "Of a truth allah is too merciful to give us both thee and the plague at one time!" On another occasion the theologian Malik Ibn Anas relates the following: "One day the Caliph Mansur sent for me and my friend Ibn Taous, against whom he was known to entertain a grudge. When we entered the presence-chamber, we beheld the executioner with his sword drawn and the leather carpet spread, on which it was customary to behead criminals. The Caliph signed to us to seat ourselves, and when we had done so he remained a long time with his head bent in meditation. He then raised it, and turning to Ibn Taous, said: 'Recite me a saying of the Prophet, on whom be peace.'
“"Ibn Taous replied: 'The Prophet of God has said, "The worst punished criminals in the day of judgment will be those to whom God has entrusted authority and who have abused it."' The Caliph was silent, and there was a pause. I trembled, and drew my garments close round me, lest any of the blood of Ibn Taous, whom I expected to see instantly executed, should spurt upon them. Then the Caliph said to Ibn Taous: 'Hand me that inkpot.' But he never stirred. 'Why don't you hand it?' asked the Caliph. 'Because,' he said, 'I fear you may write some wrong order, and I do not wish to share the responsibility.' 'Get up and go,' the Caliph growled. 'Precisely what we were desiring,' answered Ibn Taous, of whose courage and coolness I from that day formed a high opinion."
Al Mansur and The and the Mystic Amr Ibn Obaid
Abul Hasan Ali Al-Masu'di wrote: “Another bold rebuker of Al Mansur was the saint and mystic, Amr Ibn Obaid, of whom it was said that he had been "educated by the angels and brought up by the prophets." Before Al Mansur's elevation to the Caliphate, Amr Ibn Obaid had been his companion and intimate friend. When Mansur came to the throne Amr went one day into his presence, and was told by him to draw near and sit down. The Caliph then asked to hear an exhortation from him. [Source: The Book of Golden Meadows, c. 940 CE , Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 35-89, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]
Amr addressed him an admonition, in which he said, among other things: "The power which thou now wieldest, had it remained in the hands of thy predecessors, would never have come to thee. Be warned, then, of that night which shall give birth to a day never more to be followed by another night. When Amr rose to depart, Al Mansur said: "We have ordered ten thousand pieces of silver to be given thee." "I stand not in need thereof," replied Amr. "By allah, thou shalt take it!" exclaimed the Caliph. "By allah, I shall not take it!" answered the other.
“On this Al Mansur's son, Al Mahdi, who happened to be present, said to Amr: "The Commander of the Faithful swears that a thing shall be done, and yet thou art bold enough to swear that it shall not." "Who is this youth?" said Amr, turning to Al Mansur. "He is the declared successor to the Caliphate, my son, Al Mahdi," replied Mansur. "Thou hast clothed him in raiment," said Amr, "which is not the raiment of the righteous, and thou hast given him a name which he deserveth not, and thou hast smoothed for him a path wherein the more profit the less heed."
“Al Mansur then asked him if there was anything he wished, and Amr made answer: "Send not for me, but wait till I come to thee." "In that case," said Mansur, "thou wilt never meet me." "That," replied Amr, "is precisely what I desire." He then withdrew, and Al Mansur looked after him and said: "all of you walk with stealthy steps; all of you are in pursuit of prey—all except Amr Ibn Obaid!"
How Al Mansur Was Tricked
Abul Hasan Ali Al-Masu'di wrote: “It has before been mentioned that Al Mansur, disregarding the promise of pardon he had made to his uncle, Abdallah Ibn ali, who had revolted against him, cast him into prison, where he remained a long time. When the Caliph set out on the pilgrimage to Mecca, he committed Abdallah to the care of Isa Ibn Musa, with private orders to put him to death. Isa, not wishing to kill Abdallah, contented himself with concealing him, sending a message to the Caliph to say that he had been put to death. This rumor spread about, and the alides, the partisans of Abdallah, petitioned Al Mansur on the subject. The Caliph declared that he had been committed to the care of Isa. The alides then went to Isa, and hearing from him that Abdallah had been put to death, came again with complaints to Al Mansur. The latter feigned to be in a rage, and exclaimed: "Since Isa has killed my uncle without my authorizing him to do so, he shall perish in his turn." The Caliph secretly desired that Isa should have perpetrated this murder, so that he might have a reasonable pretext for killing him, and thus ridding himself of two enemies at once. [Source: The Book of Golden Meadows, c. 940 CE , Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 35-89, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]
“He accordingly sent for Isa, and said, "Is it true that you have killed my uncle?" "Yes," replied Isa; "you yourself ordered me to do so." "I never gave such an order!" cried the Caliph. "My lord, here is the letter you sent me." "I never wrote it," said Mansur. Isa, seeing the mood the Caliph was in, and fearing for his own life, confessed at last that the prisoner had been spared, and was in safe-keeping. The Caliph then ordered him to hand Abdallah over to the keeping of Abou 'l Azhar, which was accordingly done, and Abdallah remained in prison 'till his death was decided on.
“When Abou 'l Azhar came to execute the sentence, he found Abdallah with one of his female slaves. He strangled him first, but when he was proceeding to strangle the slave also, she cried out: "Servant of God, I pray thee for another kind of death." "It was the only time," Abou 'l Azhar said, "that I felt pity in carrying out a death-sentence. I turned away my eyes while I gave the order to kill her. She was strangled and placed by the side of her master. I then had the house demolished, and they remained buried in the ruins."
“Al Mansur visited Medina, and said to his chamberlain, Ar-Rabi, on entering the city: "Find me some learned and intelligent person who can point out to me ths chief mansions of the place: it is now so long since I saw the dwellings of my family." An intelligent youth was discovered by Ar-Rabi, and presented to the Caliph. During their excursion the guide did not make any observations unless asked by Al Mansur to do so, but he then proceeded with great precision and eloquence to furnish every requisite information.
“Al Mansur was so highly pleased with him that he ordered him a considerable sum of money, but the payment was delayed so long that the youth found himself under the necessity of asking for it. On being asked again to accompany Al Mansur, he fulfilled his object in the following ingenious manner: As they passed by the house which belonged to Aatika, the granddaughter of Abu Sofyan, the young man said, "This, O Commander of the Faithful, is the house of that Aatika to whom Ibn Muhammad Al Ansari alluded in these lines: 'Dwelling of Aatika! mansion which I avoid through dread of foes! although my heart be fixed on thee, I turn away and fly thee; but yet unconsciously I turn toward thee again.'"
“These words caused Al Mansur to reflect; and he said to himself that the youth here must have some reason for giving information, contrary to his habit, without being asked for it. He therefore turned over the leaves of the poem from which the verses were taken, passage by pasage, 'till he came to the following line: "We see that you do what you promise, but there are persons with deceitful tongues who promise but never perform." He immediately asked his chamberlain if he had given the youth what had been awarded him, and was informed by him that a particular circumstance, which he mentioned, had caused delay in the payment. The Caliph then ordered Ar-Rabi to give him immediately the double of what had been promised. The youth had most ingeniously hinted the circumstance, and Al Mansur showed great penetration in perceiving it.
Death of Al Mansur
Abul Hasan Ali Al-Masu'di wrote: “Al Mansur was in the habit of saying: "I was born in the month of Z'ul hajja, circumcised in it, attained the Caliphate in it, and I think I shall die in the same month." And so it befell. Fadl, son of Rabi, relates the following: "I accompanied Al Mansur in the journey during which he died. When we had arrived at one of the stages of the march he sent for me. I found him seated in his pavilion, with his face turned toward the wall. He said to me: 'Have I not told you to prevent people coming into this room and writing doleful sentences upon the wall?' 'What do you mean, Prince?' I asked. 'Don't you see what is written on the wall?' [Source: The Book of Golden Meadows, c. 940 CE , Charles F. Horne, ed., “The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East,” (New York: Parke, Austin, & Lipscomb, 1917), Vol. VI: Medieval Arabia, pp. 35-89, Internet Islamic History Sourcebook, sourcebooks.fordham.edu]
“A' "Abu Jafar, thou art about to die; thy years are fulfilled: the will of God must be done." Abu Jafar, can any astrologer bind the decrees of God, or art thou entirely blind?' 'Truly, Prince,' I replied, 'I can see no inscription on this wall: its surface is smooth and quite white.' 'Swear it, by God!' he said. I did so. 'It is, then,' he replied, 'a warning given me to prepare for my approaching demise. Let us hasten to reach the sacred territory, that I may place myself under the protection of God, and ask pardon for that wherein I have exceeded.' We continued our journey, during which the Caliph suffered great pain. When we arrived at the well of Maimun, I told him the name of the place, and that we had reached the sacred territory. He said, 'God be praised!' and died the same day."
Baghdad doesn’t have any connection with Mesopotamia. Babylon was the great city from that era. Baghdad was founded in A.D. 762 by Al-Mansur, second caliph of the Muslim Abbasid dynasty. He is said to have brought in over 100,000 architects, craftsman and laborers who built the city from scratch on the Tigris River about 20 miles from Ctesiphon, the Persian Sasanian and Parthian capital, and 60 miles from the ruins of Babylon.
Al-Mansur moved the capital of the Arab Muslim Abbasid kingdom to Baghdad from Damascus. He selected Baghdad because: 1) it lay on major trade routes; 2) Al-Mansur wanted to get as far as Umayyad influence as possible (the Umayyad Dynasty preceded the Abbasid Dynasty); and 3) it was a considerable distance from Constantinople, the home of the Byzantines, the other major power in the Near East. The city Al-Mansur built on the west side of the Tigris was called Medinat as-Salam (“City of Peace”).
In the 8th and 9th century, under the Abbasid caliphs, Baghdad became one of the great cities of the world and the center of a vast empire. During that time Baghdad grew into the “round city,” nearly three kilometers in diameter, ringed by three concentric walls. At the center was the caliph's green-domed palace, surrounded by his court and administration buildings. Bazaars, markets and craftsmen were relegated to the fringes of the city. Emanating from the four gates were highways the extended to the fringes of the Abbasid empire. A bridges of boats was built across the Tigris River.
Under the Caliph Harun al-Rashid (763-809), Baghdad becomes the richest city in the world and the center of the Islamic Golden Age. It was home to about 250,000 people (claims of a million people appear to have been exaggerations). Immortalized in the tales form “Arabian Nights”, it was both a terminus and crossroads of major Silk Road trade routes, was filled with great scholars, poets, scientists, gardens and magnificent buildings. It gave the world Arabic numbers, decimal points, algebra, algorithms and medical advances and played a major role in keeping Greco-Roman culture and scholarship alive.
Baghdad withstood numerous attacks by Persians, Turks, and other invaders but was weakened by internal divisions and finally fell in 1258 to the Mongols, who sacked the city, murdered the last Abbasid caliph, built pyramids of skulls and destroyed the city’s irrigation system. See The Mongols.
Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “All sorts of events contributed to the city's foundation. Political, economic, strategic, administrative, and climatic reasons can be and have been adduced to explain why the caliph al-Mansur decided to begin a new capital for the Muslim empire. These reasons are perfectly acceptable singly and collectively but, as the most recent investigator of early Baghdad has pointed out, practically all of them could apply to several other early Arab settlements in Iraq. It is therefore legitimate enough to suppose that something else was involved here. Fortunately a number of early literary sources and descriptions have survived which make it possible to reconstruct al-Mansur's city in considerable detail. They indicate that Baghdad was not intended only to be an economically or politically important center or even to satisfy the personal or imperial ambitions of a ruler. It had a unique meaning, which can best be understood by considering the shape given to the city. [Source:Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71.Oleg Grabar (1929-2011) was a French-born art historian and archeologist and professor at Harvard]
Baghdad and Its Round Layout
Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “It was a round city with a diameter of some 2300 meters. [For an image of the plan of the City of Baghdad at its foundation, click on image.] More important than the metric dimension, however, is the notion expressed by some sources that the diameter corresponded to a single unit of measurement, the mil. The city was surrounded by a heavy, high wall provided with large towers and preceded by a deep ditch; in this sense it appeared as a sort of fortress. There were four gates built on the same pattern: a series of long vaulted halls and occasional open areas with heavy double doors and windows for light. Over the principal door there was a second floor whose main feature was a large cupola, gilded on the outside. Over each dome there was a different "figure" (probably some bronze sculpture) which turned with the wind. Around the cupola reception halls and resting places were provided. The second story was reached through a vaulted ramp wide and high enough for horses, for it served as the main passage to the walls patrolled by horsemen. The four gates - called by the names of Khorasan, the great northeastern province, Syria, and Basrah and Kufah, the two new cities in lower Iraq - served as the main axes of the city's organization. From them one could penetrate into a ring of constructions - probably about 170 meters in width - which was arranged around a partly empty center and where the shops and living quarters were found. [Source:Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71.Oleg Grabar (1929-2011) was a French-born art historian and archeologist and professor at Harvard *|*]
“The makeup of the population was originally chosen in such a manner that all the various ethnic, tribal, and economic groups of the Muslim empire were represented. In the center the open space was partly filled with a variety of administrative buildings, largely along the inner wall that separated the center from the ring of living quarters. But the center's most important feature was the dar al-Khilafah, the imperial complex, in the very middle. It consisted of a large mosque of a traditional hypostyle type which will be discussed later, and a palace, about which little is known except that it had a large reception hall (iwan) followed by an audience hall covered with a dome. Over this first domed hall there was a second one, surmounted by the celebrated Green Dome on top of which the statue of a horseman was seen. According to tradition its lance would always point in the direction of the enemies of the Muslim empire. *|*
“No trace is left of all this. The horseman and the Green Dome collapsed in the tenth century and it is only in a thirteenth-century manuscript depicting little mechanical toys for a second-rate Turkish prince of Anatolia that we have an echo of the imperial Abbasid palace - as though the Eiffel Tower were known only through the souvenirs that copy it. A mihrab now in the Islamic Museum in Baghdad may have belonged to the great Abbasid mosque because of the early quality of its vegetal designs, but even this is not absolutely certain and it is a very minor monument anyway. The city itself hardly ever lived in the perfect shape conceived for it; even during the lifetime of al-Mansur suburbs were added, the carefully drawn internal divisions broke down, and the Round City became only a part of the enormous urban complex of Baghdad. *|*
“Yet the memory of its original shape and of the ideas behind it lasted for centuries in a way that has no parallel in the history of Islamic cities, even though dozens of new urban centers were founded by the new civilization. In one instance even - that of Raqqah in the middle Euphrates valley - another town is said to have copied it. Unfortunately there is considerable uncertainty as to which part of the immense field of ruins visible at Raqqah is the one supposedly imitating Baghdad, and the rapid growth of the contemporary city makes it unlikely that archaeologists will ever find out how closely the earlier model was followed. *|*
Why Was Baghdad Circular
Oleg Grabar wrote in “The Formation of Islamic Art”: “It is perhaps just as well that it be so, since for our purposes the true significance of Baghdad lies not so much in the physical character of its forms as in the ideas suggested by the forms. We are in the presence of a walled circular entity with four axial entries leading to a central space in the middle of which there is a palace. In the center of the palace a tall two-storied green dome surmounted by a sculpture is echoed by four golden domes over each of the entrances, also provided with sculptures. This perfect composition is not really an urban one but a palatial one, to which none of the early Islamic cities correspond, with the partial exception of Qasr al-Hayr East as it begins to emerge after recent excavations . There also a palatial significance can be given to the city, although it does not have the symbolic meaning of Baghdad. The fortresslike aspect is that of almost all palaces from late antiquity onward, with Diocletian's retreat at Spalato in Yugoslavia as one of the first examples. But, like Diocletian's palace, it was not a mere fortress. The high dome in the center was mostly symbolic, but its name was not new, for already the palace of the Umayyad caliph Hisham in Rusafah in northern Syria, the palace of the first Umayyad caliph Mu'awiyah in Damascus, and the palace of al-Hajjaj, the powerful and brutal Umayyad governor of Iraq at the turn of the seventh century, were identified by green domes that could be seen from afar. [Source:Oleg Grabar, “The Formation of Islamic Art”, Yale University Press, 1973, beginning with pp. 43- 71.Oleg Grabar (1929-2011) was a French-born art historian and archeologist and professor at Harvard *|*]
“It matters little that the green color can best be understood as the result of bronze oxydation and that, as was common in the Middle Ages, bronze or copper sheets were used to protect the wood of the roofs. Very early the notion of a Green Dome had become a symbol of imperial authority. The smaller domes over the gates did not have so exalted a symbolic meaning; according to one report they served as audience halls when the caliph wanted to look at the countryside - the mighty Euphrates from the Khorasan gate, the gardens and estates from the Kufah gate, various suburbs from the other two. A possible interpretation of these reports, for which fuller justification will be given in a later chapter, is that these domed rooms were primarily for pleasure, for the enjoyment of a pastoral setting from within the city. While many textual and archaeological documents survive from Islamic or pre-Islamic times for the existence of such formal places of pleasure utilizing some impressive natural setting, the important point about Baghdad is that all parts of the city were both compositionally and functionally united, as though they were but parts of a single palace entity. *|*
“At the same time the shape of Baghdad is a city shape. In southwestern Iran a number of Sassanian sites like Shiz or Darabgird are circular; other examples are known in Central Asia for the centuries before the Muslim conquest, and even earlier in ancient Mesopotamia. Unfortunately none of these older sites has been excavated or provided with appropriate literary information to ascertain whether their internal arrangement was in any way comparable to Baghdad's. On the whole it seems unlikely, because to none of these cities can one attribute the importance of Baghdad at the time of its foundation and in its later development. Thus, pending the archaeological exploration of some of these comparable monuments, we may be justified in concluding that in the case of Baghdad a city shape was transformed through its internal composition into a symbolic and ceremonial palace, while maintaining a sort of token urban element in carefully measured, mapped out, and selectively settled quarters between the forbidding fortified walls and the abode of the caliph. *|*
“The explanation for this phenomenon lies, it seems to me, in a conscious attempt to make an entity that would symbolize the total rule of the Muslim prince. Baghdad became known as the navel of the universe and medieval geographers put Iraq in the central and most favored clime of the world. And in the center of the circular city in the middle of the universe the caliph sat under his double dome. The ring of living quarters was but a sort of symbol of the universe that surrounded its ruler. This interpretation is supported by several additional details. The importance of astrologers in the organization and construction demonstrates that its creation exemplified ties to an older and more profound order in the new eighthcentury society. The doors in the gates came from elsewhere. One door was brought from Wasit, the Umayyad-created capital of Iraq, and was claimed to have been made by Solomon. Another gate had been carried all the way from Syria and was said to have been made for the pharaohs. Thus Baghdad must be seen not merely as a symbol of contemporary universal rule but also as an attempt once again to relate the Muslim world to the rich past of the Near East. *|*
“In this last sense Baghdad illustrates what we have also seen in the fresco from Qusayr Amrah and in the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. Yet it went beyond these monuments in two ways. First, its size and monumentality distinguished it; it was a whole city rather than a single building or a painting lost in an inaccessible desert hideout. Then, it was called Madinah al-Salam, the City of Peace. It exudes a sense of completed and definitive success, as though a sort of millennium had come during which the City of Peace would rule over the universe. It is a world confident in its own achievement that is symbolized by Baghdad. There is nothing surprising about the feeling nor about the fact that it was expressed monumentally. As we shall see later on, a similar interpretation can be given to the landscapes and buildings with which the mosque of Damascus was decorated. In the latter monument, however, the location of the mosaics restricted their impact on Muslims, as though their main purpose was to encourage the faithful, to give them appropriate self-confidence. Baghdad is there for everyone to see, and some of the earliest anecdotes about it relate to the impression made by the city on a Byzantine ambassador. Furthermore what Baghdad attempted to proclaim was not unique to Islam in its early formative centuries. It belongs to a general category of monuments which from Assyrian reliefs to Roman or Sassanian reliefs or to Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine imperial ceremonies forced on the visitor or user a realization of the tremendous power of the monument's creator.” *|*
Baghdad in the 13th Century
“Baghdad "the city of the Arabian nights" was founded in A.D. 764 by the Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur. It was in its prime about 800, during the reign of the famous caliph Harun-al-Rashid.
Yâqût al-Hamawî (1179-1229), a Syrian biographer and geographer, wrote in his “Geographical Encyclopedia”: “The city of Baghdad formed two vast semi-circles on the right and left banks of the Tigris, twelve miles in diameter. The numerous suburbs, covered with parks, gardens, villas and beautiful promenades, and plentifully supplied with rich bazaars, and finely built mosques and baths, stretched for a considerable distance on both sides of the river. In the days of its prosperity the population of Baghdad and its suburbs amounted to over two millions! The palace of the Caliph stood in the midst of a vast park several hours in circumference which beside a menagerie and aviary comprised an inclosure for wild animals reserved for the chase. The palace grounds were laid out with gardens, and adorned with exquisite taste with plants, flowers, and trees, reservoirs and fountains, surrounded by sculptured figures. On this side of the river stood the palaces of the great nobles. Immense streets, none less than forty cubits wide, traversed the city from one end to the other, dividing it into blocks or quarters, each under the control of an overseer or supervisor, who looked after the cleanliness, sanitation and the comfort of the inhabitants. [Source:William Stearns Davis, ed., Readings in Ancient History: Illustrative Extracts from the Sources, 2 Vols. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 1912-13), Vol. II: Rome and the West, pp. 365-367]
“The water exits both on the north and the south were like the city gates, guarded night and day by relays of soldiers stationed on the watch towers on both sides of the river. Every household was plentifully supplied with water at all seasons by the numerous aqueducts which intersected the town; and the streets, gardens and parks were regularly swept and watered, and no refuse was allowed to remain within the walls. An immense square in front of the imperial palace was used for reviews, military inspections, tournaments and races; at night the square and the streets were lighted by lamps.
“There was also a vast open space where the troops whose barracks lay on the left bank of the river were paraded daily. The long wide estrades at the different gates of the city were used by the citizens for gossip and recreation or for watching the flow of travelers and country folk into the capital. The different nationalities in the capital had each a head officer to represent their interests with the government, and to whom the stranger could appeal for counsel or help.
“Baghdad was a veritable City of Palaces, not made of stucco and mortar, but of marble. The buildings were usually of several stories. The palaces and mansions were lavishly gilded and decorated, and hung with beautiful tapestry and hangings of brocade or silk. The rooms were lightly and tastefully furnished with luxurious divans, costly tables, unique Chinese vases and gold and silver ornaments...The mosques of the city were at once vast in size and remarkably beautiful. There were also in Baghdad numerous colleges of learning, hospitals, infirmaries for both sexes, and lunatic asylums.
“Both sides of the river were for miles fronted by the palaces, kiosks, gardens and parks of the grandees and nobles, marble steps led down to the water's edge, and the scene on the river was animated by thousands of gondolas, decked with little flags, dancing like sunbeams on the water, and carrying the pleasure-seeking Baghdad citizens from one part of the city to the other. Along the wide-stretching quays lay whole fleets at anchor, sea and river craft of all kinds, from the Chinese junk to the old Assyrian raft resting on inflated skins.”
Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons
Text Sources: Internet Islamic History Sourcebook: sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The Guardian, BBC, Al Jazeera, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, Associated Press, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2018